Lens: Hondros and Hetherington: Photographing the Liberian Civil War

Lens: Hondros and Hetherington: Photographing the Liberian Civil War

- in Automotive


A show at the Bronx Documentary Center reveals how Liberia’s civil war shaped the lives and careers of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington.

Liberians fleeing the sound of fighting near Monrovia’s Stockton Bridge in July 2003.CreditCreditChris Hondros/Getty Images

The American photographer Chris Hondros was running for cover on a day of heavy shelling during the height of Liberia’s civil war on July 21, 2003, when he came across the body of Lasana Harding, a schoolboy killed only moments earlier. The boy, dressed in blue trousers and a white shirt, lay face down in the dirt bleeding from a head wound, the handle of a torn plastic shopping bag still looped through his fingers.

Mortars killed 60 people that day, but Mr. Hondros paused in the midst of the bombardment to take a picture, one of his many images documenting the human cost of Liberia’s second civil war. He also found the boy’s photo ID from class 7B at St. Mary Catholic School, putting a name and a face to one of the thousand or so people killed during a two-month siege of the capital Monrovia, most of them civilians.

A man holds the identification card of Lasana Harding after the child was killed by a mortar shell.CreditChris Hondros/Getty Images

“Chris was the quintessential photojournalist. He never missed a shot,” said Michael Kamber, a photographer who was with Mr. Hondros that day. “If there was fighting, he was always right there next to it, getting every moment of action.”

Mr. Kamber was working for The New York Times and Mr. Hondros for Getty Images. Both were on the government-controlled side of Monrovia, a city perched on a peninsula where rebels lobbed mortars into densely populated areas from across a bridge. Both sides relied on ragtag bands of drugged up child soldiers.

“It was kids in T-shirts and flip-flops as high as kites,” said Mr. Kamber, who worked for weeks amid the chaos alongside Mr. Hondros. “It was a kind of madness.”

Documenting the conflict from the rebel side was British photographer Tim Hetherington, connected to his two friends across the front line by only the arc of projectiles.

“I’m sure Tim had pictures of rebels firing mortars, and Chris and I were in the other part of town where the mortars were landing and killing civilians,” said Mr. Kamber, who compared photos with Mr. Hetherington after the war.

An explosion on April 20, 2011, killed Mr. Hondros and Mr. Hetherington during fighting in Misrata, Libya. Mr. Kamber and Cynthia Rivera have now curated work by his two friends to be exhibited together for the first time in a new show, “War and Peace in Liberia” at the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) from Oct. 26 to Dec. 16.

An image from the book “Long Story Bit By Bit: Liberia Retold”: A member of the antiaircraft brigade exchanges a brief tender word with his girlfriend.CreditTim Hetherington/Magnum Photos
Rain clouds gather over the forest near Fish Town, Liberia.CreditTim Hetherington/Magnum Photos
A young rebel fighter in Tubmanburg, Liberia.CreditTim Hetherington/Magnum Photos

“They were friends and colleagues, they worked together and they died together, but their work has never been shown side by side,” said Mr. Kamber, the founder and executive director of the BDC, a nonprofit gallery and educational space he conceived with Mr. Hetherington.

The free show, produced in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, the Chris Hondros Fund, Getty and Magnum, explores the early careers of two of the best conflict photographers in a generation, and suggests their work helped spur a robust international response. More than a quarter of a million people died in two Liberian wars between 1989 and 2003, but the country now enjoys a measure of democracy and stability thanks to foreign intervention and a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

Liberia’s civil wars occurred before the explosion of social media, and the conflict may be one of the last examples of a time when photojournalism had a tangible impact on a war’s outcome.

“The pictures were coming out into a very different context,” said Mr. Kamber. “And it’s my contention that their photos helped end the war.”

The two photographers are a contrast in styles, with Mr. Hondros taking a muscular hard-news approach that dominated front pages day after day while Mr. Hetherington, who shot film with a medium-format Hasselblad, was more conceptual and contemplative.

“Tim was photographing graffiti, and close-ups of fighters’ painted fingernails, and landscapes,” said Mr. Kamber. “For Tim, everything was about context. He was in the middle of combat, but he was pulling way back and looking at larger concepts of war and humanity.”

A woman grieving over the body of a relative outside a church in Monrovia.CreditChris Hondros/Getty Images
A girl walking amid laundry on the lawn of a Masonic temple converted into a refugee camp in Monrovia.CreditChris Hondros/Getty Images
Joseph Duo, a militia commander loyal to the government, after firing a rocket-propelled grenade at rebel forces at a strategic bridge. The photo is one of the defining images of the war.CreditChris Hondros/Getty Images

If Mr. Hondros was providing a rough first draft of Liberia’s war story, then Mr. Hetherington refined it by layering in nuance, deepening our understanding and producing a completed manuscript of the conflict with his poetic book “Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold.” One of his images shows a member of the rebel Antiaircraft brigade in a tender exchange with his girlfriend during heavy fighting. Their body language and expressions of mutual concern — her hand extended gently toward him as he leans over and holds her gaze — speak volumes about the fear of separation and loss during war.

“War and Peace in Liberia” also reveals how the country shaped the lives and careers of Mr. Hondros and Mr. Hetherington. Many photographers drop into foreign wars, take their pictures, sometimes win awards and then move on, but Mr. Hetherington returned to live in Liberia for several years and was deeply committed to the people he met. He invested in local communities and paid for his driver’s daughter to attend nursing school. She graduated in 2011.

Mr. Hondros returned too, tracking down people he’d documented, most famously Joseph Duo, a fighter he’d photographed shirtless and leaping for joy after firing a rocket at rebels. The picture is one of the defining images of the war. Mr. Hondros encouraged Mr. Duo to go back to high school, and helped pay his tuition. The former fighter who had spent a decade living in the bush later studied criminal justice and last year went into politics.

Both photographers created seminal works from more recent wars, especially Mr. Hondros in Iraq and Mr. Hetherington in Afghanistan, but Liberia is where they each turned a corner, according to Mr. Kamber.

War graffiti left during the various parts of the Liberian civil war. 2004.CreditTim Hetherington/Magnum Photos
A Liberian militia child soldier loyal to the government walks away from firing while another taunts rebel fighters.CreditChris Hondros/Getty Images

“Tim had never done anything like this, and it was a precursor to everything he did later in terms of concepts of men and war and machismo,” said Mr. Kamber, adding that Mr. Hondros also came into his own during the war. “He was always a solid photographer, but he proved he had an incredible amount of courage and would put himself out there for the Liberian people. It took his work and his life to a different level.”

The show provides insight into two respected photographers, both of whom have been profiled in documentary films about their remarkable work and lives, but neither would likely have wanted the attention focused solely on them. They often put their concern for civilians above their own welfare and, Mr. Kamber said, would want the exhibition to reflect their devotion to the people they photographed.

“Chris and Tim would want to focus on cost of war to Liberian civilians, and civilians caught up in war everywhere,” said Mr. Kamber. “That was the main theme in both of their lives.”

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